Commentary

What is GM's role in Chiefs' troubles?

Coaching and injuries to key players are not entirely to blame for awful 0-2 start

Originally Published: September 22, 2011
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

The head coach keeps claiming he's solely responsible for the problems currently plaguing the Kansas City Chiefs. The players keep saying they won't let an embarrassing start snowball into an utterly humiliating season. What's missing from all these mea culpas and mission statements are comments from the man who was supposed to be smart enough to keep this franchise pointed in the right direction. It's time for Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli to take some blame for a team built from his blueprint.

[+] EnlargeScott Pioli
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelKansas City GM Scott Pioli was not aggressive in free agency, which now appears to have been a mistake.

The Chiefs have gone from AFC West champions to producing arguably the worst start ever by a team that just won a division title. They've given up 89 points, scored just 10, committed nine turnovers and been decimated by two teams (Buffalo and Detroit) that haven't reached the postseason since Bill Clinton was in the White House. The easy explanations for these struggles have been offered already -- that coach Todd Haley ran a soft training camp and season-ending knee injuries to three starters (tight end Tony Moeaki, running back Jamaal Charles and safety Eric Berry) are too debilitating to overcome. The truth is much harder to focus on -- that this team was flawed before any of that stuff ever happened.

Pioli was hired to be the resident genius three years ago, the man who helped New England become a dynasty right alongside Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Right now, it's hard to believe the hype. This offseason he made little attempt to improve a roster that had some glaring flaws, and his biggest acquisition in free agency was wide receiver Steve Breaston. Standing pat after a strong season works well when you're as loaded as Green Bay or Pittsburgh. It's a pretty big gamble when you're a team that feasted on a weak schedule in 2010 and then wilted in a blowout playoff loss to Baltimore.

Pioli's lack of aggressiveness is even more glaring because it comes at a time when the Chiefs are flush with cash. Kansas City had nearly $34 million in salary cap space when the lockout ended, a total that ranked it near the top of the NFL. The Philadelphia Eagles weren't in that kind of financial shape and they attacked free agency as if Warren Buffett were writing the checks. The New York Jets were just as willing to improve their team a year earlier, when they made enough savvy moves to aid their return to the AFC Championship Game.

[+] EnlargeDwyane Bowe
Mike Carter/US PresswireDwayne Bowe is an exciting young player for the Chiefs, but he was drafted by the previous regime.

Because Pioli isn't taking that kind of approach to bolstering his own talent pool, it's fair to wonder if team owner Clark Hunt is handcuffing him to a tight budget. If that isn't the case, then Pioli -- who rarely talks publicly -- has some explaining to do. As much as Haley has taken heat for this ugly start, he deserves credit for last season, especially for helping develop players like Charles, wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson. Those players were there before Pioli came to town.

That is the biggest irony here, that Pioli's success thus far has come largely on the backs of talent that former general manager Carl Peterson drafted. Sure, running back Thomas Jones and guard Ryan Lilja were nice free agent additions last season, and quarterback Matt Cassel has blossomed into a solid starter. But the offense and defense still needed more playmakers before this rash of injuries. The mere fact that the Chiefs had wide receiver Keary Colbert -- who had been coaching tight ends at USC just a few months ago -- on the field in Week 1 tells you what kind of depth Pioli had created at that position.

And then there are Kansas City's drafts. Aside from making a no-brainer pick of Berry in last year's first round, Pioli has made two shaky selections with top picks. The Chiefs used the third overall selection in the 2009 draft to take Tyson Jackson, a 3-4 defensive end who still hasn't made an impact. This year Pioli traded up to take wide receiver Jon Baldwin, a player who had character issues entering the draft and then validated them by injuring his thumb in a training camp scuffle with Jones. Baldwin still has yet to play a down for Kansas City.

Granted, it takes a few years for draft picks to find their way, and some of the Chiefs' lower-round picks still might blossom. But Pioli was also supposed to be a savior in Kansas City. The Chiefs' start this season makes it harder to buy into that theory. It's even tougher now that Haley is looking more and more like an easy fall guy in this calamitous campaign.

It would be a shame for him to take all the blame because, after all, he was Pioli's first hire. And of all the people in the Chiefs' organization, Pioli is supposed to be the one with the best understanding of what it takes to build a consistent winner. It would be one thing if the Chiefs were just off to an 0-2 start. Right now they look like a team destined for the first pick in next year's draft, especially with a schedule that still includes opponents like the Patriots, Steelers, Packers, Jets and Bears.

Even the luster of Kansas City's division championship seems tainted now, more fluke than feel-good story. When you look at the end of last season, you see a team that was outscored 61-17 in its final two games. That should have been a major red flag, an omen that this team faced a much longer climb to reach the NFL's upper echelon. Now it is simply a squad that has to question everything about its organization, starting with the invisible man at the top of the power structure.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.